Playtime in Vanuatu

By Catherine Masters

Children on the island of Pentecost play basketball court at the Latano Catholic Mission. Photo / Catherine Masters
Children on the island of Pentecost play basketball court at the Latano Catholic Mission. Photo / Catherine Masters

Pentecost is not expecting us. The villagers of the Latano Catholique Mission, in the north of the rugged little island, watch as we take a small boat from our luxurious small cruise ship, the Island Passage, and head their way.

From a distance, the collection of brightly painted buildings we can see peeping out from the lush jungle looks a veritable metropolis compared to the other deserted jungle-clad islands we have seen on this five-night Vanuatuan cruising adventure.

When we hop off our little motorboat, wearing the obligatory coral shoes, and clamber ungracefully ashore, no one comes running. Maybe it is deserted. Or perhaps, I think, the villagers here at the so-called capital of this island are a bit over tourists. How wrong I am.

Soon Janeth with the big smile approaches. She speaks English at this French-speaking village and offers to be our guide.

That would be great, we say, and she replies, "Hang on, I'll just change."

Janeth pops into a little house, swaps the towel around her waist for a sarong and emerges wearing the same raggedy T-shirt.

We walk up the mud road past a fenced kava plot to where we have heard children playing and soon we are utterly swamped.

It must be PE time because it seems the whole school is outside playing soccer or screaming and shrieking on the weedy, broken-concrete basketball pad with its stunning views over Loltong Bay.

The kids here are something else. As one, they are dressed in old, shabby clothes and, as one, they wear the biggest smiles you've ever seen.

When they see us, they come running. All of them. They surround us, whooping and hollering and giggling.

But chaos really breaks out when we take photos and show them their faces in the screens. The excitement is so intense this could well be the first time they have seen their faces before.

The focal point of Pentecost's capital turns out to be a brightly painted yellow concrete church, built in front of the shell of the previous church which was left as was after a cyclone destroyed it.

Janeth poses in the pretty church garden where remnants of the colonial influence can be seen in the sunflowers, vying with roses and native hibiscus.

The rest of the village is made up of the usual put-together huts with thatched roofs.

Janeth explains she is not from here, she is from the island of Tanna, but fell in love with the visiting school teacher who brought her back to his home on Pentecost. She giggles when we say, "ah, a love story".

They have two children now. She tells me she speaks English and he speaks French so they communicate using Bislama, the pidgin English spoken throughout the islands.

We feel immediately at home but when the skipper of our cruise ship, Captain Paul Mabee, arrives on a second small boatload of passengers he asks whether there is a chief he should talk to about coming ashore.

There are protocols to follow on the islands of Vanuatu and he just wants to make sure it's okay for us to descend on the village like this.

No one seems to mind and soon Captain Paul is surrounded by so many giggling children he can scarcely move.

After a while, Janeth leads us up the steep hillside, past gardens of taro, yams, corn, sugar cane and kava so we can take photos of the picturesque bay from the top.

The little gardens are surrounded by barbed wire fences.

"For the Pullocks," Janeth explains. She means the fences keep the bullocks out - islanders have trouble distinguishing between the English P and B sounds.

We're way up high now, looking down on the tiny village and bay below but even here the yells of the children echo up.

The views are to die for. Captain Paul says this village is not used to tourists and this visit demonstrates the beauty of travelling the islands on a smaller ship.

The Island Passage is equipped for only 20 guests. You can anchor somewhere completely unplanned, because the best laid plans tend to come unstuck in Vanuatu, and take in an unexpected island visit like this.

Before we leave, we buy some of the finely woven baskets the women of the village spend days making. They're lovely, but really we are just paying our way.

After lots of of "tank yu tumas" - which means thank you very much in Bislama - we walk back to the small boat followed again by the raggedy, beaming kids.

One of our group, Valerie, makes faces at them until they're literally doubled over, giggling.

They wave and wave their little arms until we are specks again in the distance. Back aboard the Island Passage we drink fine New Zealand wine and think what a special day it has been.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Vanuatu flies to Port Vila three times a week, on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The Sunday flight is operated by Air New Zealand. Fares vary from $170 one way to $249 one way.

From Port Vila to other islands you take a small domestic plane. Watch
your luggage if you take these flights. Big hard suitcases are not
allowed, so take soft surface luggage which can be squashed into sometimes tiny planes.

Cruising: Island Escape Cruises offer three and five-night luxury cruises on the Island Passage around Vanuatu from May to October. The three-night cruise starts from $1350 per person. The five-night cruise starts from $2695 per person.

At other times of the year cruises are offered in the Marlborough
Sounds and the Hauraki Gulf. The Island Passage is also available for
private charters and fishing trips.

Check out the website on: islandescape.co.nz

Further information: See the Vanuatu Tourism Office website.

Catherine Masters travelled to Vanuatu and joined the Island Passage's inaugural trip there courtesy of Island Escape Cruises.

- NZ Herald

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